This review will contain mild spoilers for The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
We write at length, practically on a daily basis, about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a phrase that has entered our pop-culture lexicon as Marvel's movie studio has expanded its reach. But how often do you stop and consider what that term actually means? I’ll admit that I didn’t fully grasp the scope of the phrase – particularly the word “Universe” – until Joss Whedon expanded the playing field with his massive, immersive and wildly entertaining The Avengers: Age of Ultron. If the initial Avengers movie introduced the discordant team to our world in 2012, then its sequel illustrates how we now exist in a universe that belongs to super-powered heroes and villains… for better, and for worse.
Because the terrain has been sufficiently established over 10 previous Marvel movies, Whedon is able to forgo any tedious, repetitive introduction and open Age of Ultron with a bang. The Avengers – a multi-faceted squad led by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) – move in on a HYDRA facility run by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), an adversary spotted in the mid-credits sequence for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Baron is encouraged to unleash “The Twins,” enhanced warriors given powers by the mysterious gem located in Loki’s scepter. HYDRA used the alien stone’s magical abilities to experiment on willing human test subjects. Tony Stark, once he obtains the stone, has other, similarly dubious plans.
Is all of this gibberish to you? That likely means you haven’t religiously logged the necessary Marvel hours needed to understand all that’s happening in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Even as someone who has watched films like Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 3 numerous times, I felt there was a lot to process in The Avengers: Age of Ultron -- world-building that pertained to the story being told in this film, as well as studio service for the larger Phase 3 plans of the ever-growing MCU. Be warned that Whedon hasn’t made a movie for casuals. He has a lot to get to during Ultron’s 141-minute run, and neither the time nor the patience to hold the hand of non-fans.
Boiling Age of Ultron down to one central idea is complicated, but if we had to single out the thrust of the storyline, it would involve Tony Stark and his continued emotional repercussions of the alien attack from the end of the first Avengers film. Still wary of a second-wave – and acknowledging that an “end game” has to occur in outer space – Stark uses the power found in the stone in Loki’s scepter to create artificial intelligence. As is usually the case with Tony, his intentions are noble. He collaborates with fellow Science Bro, Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), to achieve “peace in our time” by creating Ultron – an entity similar to Stark’s intelligent program, J.A.R.V.I.S. Except, in true Frankenstein (or Pinocchio) fashion, the creation turns on its creator and takes on a life of its own.
Age of Ultron isn’t Iron Man 4, though, and Joss Whedon has several other plates he needs to keep spinning as this sprawling, ensemble-driven story finds its way. Even briefly touching on the subplots at work in this Avengers sequel, fans can look forward to: a developing love story between Banner (Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), aka Black Widow; the introduction of two vital team members in Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen); the increased development of dead-eye archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), whom this sequel repeatedly reminds us was short-changed in the previous Avengers adventure; a detour to South Africa, and a reference to Wakanda, where we stick a pin in Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis) and acknowledge that he’ll likely return for Marvel’s announced Black Panther movie; and the birth of The Vision (Paul Bettany), easily the coolest thing to hit the MCU in ages.
You see? A lot has to happen in The Avengers: Age of Ultron -- yes, arguably, too much – because I’ve barely mentioned characters like Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) or War Machine (Don Cheadle), and they aren’t mere supporting players. (Though it’s possible that some of the series’ signature heroes have been relegated to cogs needed to keep the massive wheel turning this time out.) The novelty of seeing the Avengers assemble for the first time on screen is gone, so Whedon fills that loss with beefier action sequences meant to please both comic-book and summer-blockbuster crowds. That opening raid on HYDRA’s base is a head-turner, anchored by an incredible unbroken shot that lingers momentarily on each Avenger in a state of combat. Even if you’ve avoided most of the Ultron marketing materials, you no doubt saw some footage of the film’s centerpiece brawl between a possessed Hulk and a fortified Iron Man in full Hulkbuster mode. And then there are battles with Ultron sprinkled throughout the film, leading to – as you’d imagine – a massive CGI climax.
The film’s weakness brings up a continual issue with films in the MCU, though. Ultron (James Spader), as a villain, disappoints. His sinister motivations aren’t clear enough. His powers seem to fluctuate. He’s angry at Tony in a murky “you betrayed me, father” manner, but their conflict gets no time to manifest, so Ultron’s never as dangerous as Whedon intended him to be. The Avengers attack this being and his army of robots simply because they are there. Scarlet Witch is far more terrifying, even though her reign as a threat is short-lived. Ultron’s endgame actually had to be explained to me by a colleague who’d seen the film twice, and admitted to better understanding some of the convoluted story on a second viewing.
That’s not to take away from the overall impact of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, because what it sets out to do, it does very well. Whedon understands what makes these dysfunctional heroes tick, and there’s an immeasurable delight that comes with seeing them in action, together, on the big screen. In the film’s closing moments, it’s evident that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is ever changing and perpetually growing. And so long as the movies maintain this level of quality, it’s a universe we’ll continue to enjoy revisiting time and time again.